Saturday, August 13, 2011

German Pension Plans in Tanzania

Anyone who has seen either the African Queen or Out of Africa knows that during WWI, the fighting extended to The Dark Continent, where Britain, France, and Belgium helped themselves to the colonies Germany had set up in the 25 years after the Congress of Berlin. In an amazing fluke of history, the officer in charge of German East Africa (modern day Tanzania) happened to have an Army commander, Paul Von Lettow-Vorbeck, who turned out to be a singularly talented and tenacious leader. From the first day of the war he knew that he was completely on his own. He got almost no help from home in the entire war and with a force of 30 German officers, 100 NCOs, 1000 native troops and about 3000 porters, he launched a hit and run campaign against allied forces that frequently outnumbered him over 10 to 1. Few people thought that colony’s resistance would last more than a few weeks.

That campaign is just one more example of General Sherman’s statement that war is hell. The fighting devastated food production, led to widespread starvation, and when the Spanish Flu reached that part of Africa through 1918 and in 1919, it hit the European population hard and the African population even worse. Vorbeck did not lay down his arms until November 23, 1913, when he finally got word the Armistice had been signed 12 days earlier. Vorbeck and his men were the only German soldiers out of the millions of men who served in the Wehrmacht, were the only ones who got a victory parade when they went back to Berlin.

Back in Gemrnay, Vorceck was advanced from Lt Colonel to major general until he was forced into early retirement. Although not a professional politician, he was an excellent judge of character: he loathed Adolph Hitler from day 1. After the Fuhrer offered to make Vorbeck the ambassador to the Port of St James, Vorbeck indignantly refused. WWII was a terrible thing for the Vorbeck family. Both his sons were killed in the war, Vorbeck’s house was destroyed in a bombing raid and for the last years of the war, he lived in fear that the Gestapo surveillance he was subjected to might turn into arrest or execution. After 1945, Vorbeck’s family escaped starvation, ironically enough, by food parcels sent to him by his old adversary, South African Field Marshall Smuts. Vorbeck was blessed with extraordinary longevity. He lived into his nineties, outlasting the Nazis and even lived to see Tanzania become an independent country. In the last years of his life he was invited back to his old stomping grounds as a guest on a number of occasions.

There is one last PS to Vorbeck’s life which would make an excellent ending if they ever make a movie about him. Sometime in the late 1950s, some West German bureaucrat pointed out that quite a few of the Tanzanian natives had fought bravely for Germany and that they really ought to receive back pay and, in some case, pensions (there are all kinds of valid criticisms to be made over Germany’s government actions the past century, but they are really good about meeting pension obligations). A German delegation went back and tried to locate soldiers who had valid claims to German army serive (to the German government, I’m sure that qualified as a bit of petty cash—to Tanzanian natives, German army pay with 40 years’ interest was a king’s ransom. SA few Tanzanian men had the documents Vorceck had given them back in 1918. A few more still had their army uniforms, and a few others could literally show the scars of battle. Some very clever Wehrmacht veteran came up with a very clever test. They called applicants in one by one, gave them a broom, and asked them to perform the manual of arms. The records show that every man passed that test.

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